Campaign Cash: Burn Rate

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Why Reporters Love Campaign Finance Report Filing Deadlines: (1) It finally forces most candidates and political operations to show their cards and reveal how much money they've actually taken in (2) it allows us to see where all the money is being spent (3) it allows us to see how fast that money is being spent. Given that so much of the fundraising for big campaigns is disclosed on a regular basis under California law, it's really numbers two and three on that list that make deadlines like today interesting.

And in the biggest race in the state, what stands out tonight is how different the campaigns of the three major candidates are when it comes to spending that money with still months to go before voters head to the polls.

It's hard not to focus first on the stark contrast between presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown and Republican front runner Meg Whitman. Truth be told, the differences are so great that the narrative here is like catnip for political scribes: in the first 73 days of 2010, Brown spent $144,101.97 on his race for a third term, while the newcomer Whitman spent, umm, slightly more. $26,802,973.33.

Or put another way: for every $1 Brown spent, Whitman spent $186.

But wait a minute, you say. Brown actually didn't officially begin his quest for governor until just two weeks ago, so might the gubernatorial campaign committee's low spending mask the dollars spent out of his attorney general campaign account? Yes. From that account, he spent a whopping $63,248, transferring the rest into the guv effort.

So... recalculating... for every $1 Brown has spent, Whitman has spent $129. I stand corrected.

Whitman has written personal checks to her campaign totaling more than $39 million, with $20 million of that since the beginning of the year (the candidate has raised just slightly more than $1 million in 2010 from contributors). That personal stake, plus the record breaking pace of spending, makes it hard to see how Team Whitman doesn't spend at least a couple of days explaining to anyone and everyone why their 'burn rate' of cash is so high... a rate already being crunched by some down to the minute. After all, the Republican candidate's campaign appears to have spent almost as much on services categorized as postage as Brown has spent in total.

Whitman's challenger, Steve Poizner, spent about $3.15 million between January 1 and last week... an amount that would get more attention if not dwarfed by the Whitman spending. (Interesting aside: Poizner's spending includes a $24,000 reimbursement to the state for the CHP security detail he gets as insurance commissioner.) Of course, some will wonder why the candidate hasn't spent more, especially with poll numbers continuing to show him well behind in the race.

Does money, alone, win a race? No. In fact, most of the record holders in state history -- using personal wealth -- have actually failed to win office. But it does by access to the airwaves and to mailboxes already filling up with campaign material. And there's no doubt a lot more on the way; Brown may be sitting on about $14 million in the bank, but he knows he needs more. Ditto for Poizner, who's sitting on roughly the same amount. As for Whitman, she reported having only $4.5 million cash on hand as of last week... which probably means she'll be back in her own personal piggy bank before too long.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Marco

    Is there a searchable database someplace where I can find out how much the candidates in my assembly district have raised and spent?

  • John Myers

    Sort of. You can search the Secretary of State’s website by the name of your assemblymember and any challengers he or she might have. But be warned: if you want more than total numbers on spending and fundraising, you have to wade through PDF files. Welcome to the world of us reporters! The site is: